athlete mindfulness breathing exercises anxiety

Yogis, Soldiers, and Weightlifters: Breathing for Performance

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You’re on deck for your first attempt at your first meet.

You’re at Nationals and just asked for a PR weight to be loaded.

It’s your third clean and jerk, and you need this lift to total.

I’ve been in every one of these situations, and they all had one thing in common: “nerves.” I don’t know any athlete who doesn’t have to fight anxiety at some point in their career. Often, it is what separates champions from those who “choke.”

Of the symptoms associated with high anxiety, the most noticeable are elevated heart rate and shortened breaths originating high in the chest. What if I told you that you have an easily administered tranquilizer within you at this very moment? You’re using it right now without even thinking about it.

Breathing is one of two key elements of the autonomic nervous system that we are capable of controlling (the other is blinking). Breathing engages the vagus nerve, responsible for automatic body functions such as heart rate. A healthy vagal tone is marked by a slight increase in heart rate during inhalations and a decrease during exhalations. According to an article in Psychology Today, “Deep diaphragmatic breathing—with a long, slow exhale—is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing heart rate and blood pressure, especially in times of performance anxiety.”

This information has been cited, if not proven, by yogis for centuries. Yoga teaches students about pranayama, which means “to extend the vital life force/breath.” Yoga students will practice their breathing, using it to come into a place of calmness. One practice is to exhale twice the duration of an inhale, working up to a 4-count inhalation with an 8-count exhalation.

This practice bears great similarity to “tactical breathing” used by military and police to “rapidly regain control of [their] body during critical situations” as Mark Miller writes. Miller goes on to say, “We can use breathing as a bridge back from mindless panicked ‘fight or flight’ to put ourselves in optimal condition to fight.

So, how can this be utilized for weightlifters? Next time you feel nervousness taking you over, stop and breathe. Here is the method I utilize:

  • Sit down (if you have trouble feeling your breath in your diaphragm, you might want to lie down and place your hand on your stomach; this will help you feel your breath rising and falling).
  • Close your eyes or fix your eyes on a single point. Scanning the room, the platform, and other lifters will typically add to your nervous energy.
  • Inhale for 4 seconds. Breathe from your diaphragm.
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  • Exhale for 4 to 8 seconds. Again, breathe from your diaphragm. Don’t push yourself to eight. Our goal isn’t to feel lightheaded, but see if you can naturally get to a longer exhale. The longer the exhale the better the inhale.

I credit this technique to come back and hit third attempts after missing my second attempts on both snatch and clean and jerk at Nationals.

So, next time nerves threaten to derail your performance, try tactical breathing/pranayama to release what Otto Loewi called vagusstoff, the natural anxiety blocker inside all of us.


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